Mar 12, 2012

We gotta number there

Richard Cook eased his silver Mercedes into the driveway, the wrought iron gates closing silently behind him. Seeing a tall African man pacing on the stoep balling and unballing his fists gave him a start. His wife, Jennifer, directed his attention to the woman and child sitting under the jacarandah tree eating sandwiches out of a brown paper bag.
"What a nerve. How did they get in?" he asked.
"Don't lose it, Rick. Just hear what they want."
Richard switched off the car and got out. The man came down from the stoep, the woman gathering up her things on the lawn, coming towards them holding the hand of the little girl.
"Good afternoon, boss," the man started. "I am Jonas Mbulu and this is - come here, Lucky - my wife, Lucky, and my daughter, Shona."
"You're trespassing on my property," Richard Cook said. "How did you get in?"
Jonas had his cap in his hand, crunching it in a knot. "We climbed over the gate. I know it's wrong, but we couldn't take the chance that someone else would come to you first."
"First? First for what?"
"You sacked your gardener, boss. I wanted to apply for the job. I'm good with my hands. I've looked after gardens and horses and can fix many things."
Richard looked at his wife. "How do you know I sacked my gardener?"
"Everyone knows everyone else in Imizamo Yethu, boss. We are five doors from Cyril."
"Did Cyril tell you why I fired him?"
Jonas hesitated. "He said he cut your roses without asking, boss, and gave them away. It was for his cousin's funeral."
"Every single one of them. My whole rose garden. And my dahlias."
Jonas nodded his head that he understood. "He did wrong, boss. His cousin did die, but he did wrong. He could've asked."
"That's not all. He let one of his friends stay in the house while he went out. The friend took off with the VCR. We need a gardener, but this time we want references."
Jonas reached into his pocket. It was the moment he'd been waiting for, to be asked for references. "I have a paper that says where I worked, boss. The telephone number's on it. Lucky has a reference, also. She worked for a madam in Sea Point, but the madam has gone to live in another country. We can both work for you if you'll give us a job. We're honest people, we've been looking for work for a long time. We waited three hours in your garden, boss, give us a chance."
Richard studied the man with the cap in his hand. Jonas had on clean clothes. He was fit, in his thirties, his wife a slim, young woman standing neatly at his side. It was the little girl, in a hand-me-down navy pleated skirt and white blouse several sizes too big for her, and shoes with laces made out of string that decided him.
"Let's see the letter."
Jonas handed it over. Richard read it. He didn't show his surprise. Jonas had worked as a chauffeur and gardener for an American businessman when the company, succumbing to political pressure in l993, closed its doors in South Africa and Jonas was let go.
"I would never have left Mr. Gordon, boss, but the sanctions cost us all. I haven't been able to find steady work since."
The Mbulus started work on a trial basis the following day, and soon a routine was established. Jennifer worked as a broker in a real estate office in the mornings, and arrived home in the afternoons to find Jonas busy in the garden or in the garage fixing things, Lucky bustling about a spotless house, preparing the meat and vegetables for that night's supper, or pressing Richard's shirts with a preciseness that greatly pleased him.
One afternoon, Richard came home from work and found Jonas uprooting an old tree. “I want to talk to you for a minute, Jonas. Can you come inside?”
Jonas washed his face and hands at the tap, and went into the kitchen.
"I've been thinking, Jonas, my stripper’s gone back to the Transkei. I can use someone like you at the shop, stripping and refinishing antiques. What do you say? Are you interested?"
Jonas' eyes opened slightly at the offer. His face was still wet, and drops of water sat in sparkling crystals in his wiry hair above his forehead and ears. "A job at the shop, boss?"
"Yes. I can get someone else to do the gardening here, unless you want to do that too. The job at the shop is hard work, but pays double what you get now."
Jonas glanced at his wife setting down a tea tray in front of Jennifer who was seated across from her husband at the kitchen table. Lucky’s brows rose slightly, but she kept her eyes on the tray.
"Double what I get now, boss?"
“Yes. You would leave with me in the mornings. That means you'd have to be here by seven every day."
"That's not a problem, boss. I’ll be here by six. I would very much like that job. Oh yes, very much."
"And the gardening? You have kept it in good shape, Jonas; once a week should be enough."
"I'll do that too, boss. We need the money. I could work in the garden a little every night after work and whole day Sunday if I have to."
"Sunday's your day off," Jennifer chimed in.
"That's all right, madam. Lucky and me, we are saving for something. What do I do anyway on a Sunday except sit with my neighbor, Bantu, and his wife and watch television until the battery runs out?"
"Tell them the other thing, Rick," Jennifer said.
Jonas waited to hear what it was.
Richard took out a cigarette and lit it. “We've decided to give you the room in the yard. There's a toilet and shower, and I’ll build on a small kitchen. It's not big, but you wouldn't have to go back to the squatter camp. You can live here as long as you want."
"Here, sir?" Lucky asked incredulously. She turned to Jennifer. "On madam's premises?"
"Yes,” Jennifer confirmed. “We don't want anything for it."
Lucky looked from Jennifer to her husband. "No one has been this good to us. And the room's not small, madam, it's big. For us it's more than we have. And water right in the kitchen. It's too much."
"Lucky's right, boss," Jonas said. "This is too much good news. A job at the shop, and now you are offering us a place to stay. We don't know how to say thank you. We don’t know how, boss, but we can't take it."
The Cooks looked at each other. "You can't? Why not?" Richard asked.
Jonas stood upright. "We've always lived in the Imizamo Yethu village, boss. We don't know any other place. We gotta number there. We feel strong about that number, it’s the only thing we have. And the government's offering 80 square meter sites with a toilet, water, and electricity. We're saving for one of those. We want to own our own home. We've never owned a home, boss."
"That's wonderful, Jonas," Jennifer said. "We didn't know you had these plans. How much will a house like that cost?"
"Five thousand rand, madam. That's why we are happy for this job. We'll be able to put our names down and have a house by next year. A lot of people are waiting for the free houses the ANC promised. Lucky and me, we don't want anything for free. We want to build our first home in the new South Africa. We want to say Jonas and Lucky did it, and pay for it with our own money."
Richard inhaled slowly on his cigarette. Jennifer sipped on her tea.
That evening after supper when the Mbulus had gone home, Jennifer returned to the subject. "We should help them, Rick. We could help them with the down payment. You can deduct it from Jonas' pay."
"Let's not jump ahead of ourselves, Jen. Jonas still has to prove himself at the shop."
"You know he will. Everything he does, he does neatly and with care. Admit it, you couldn't get the rust off that old Mazda. He sanded it down, sealed it, and touched it up. You can get it roadworthied now if you want. We couldn't ask for more honest people. I still can’t believe they turned down a room with toilet facilities."
"How much of a down payment?"
"One or two thousand rand. We can stand surety for the balance. It’ll make it easier for them to get a loan. We can also give them Sandra’s old bed, it’s just taking up space. And the sofa, and some of the chairs."
Richard waited a month before he spoke to the Mbulus again. He sat them down, and outlined the plan. “I’ve already inquired from the RSC the figures involved. I’ll take you and Lucky with me to the bank. I’ll guarantee the loan. If it’s all right with you, I’ll deduct two hundred rand a month until you’ve paid me back. If you’re going to borrow three thousand from the bank, I suggest you pay them the same. More, if you can afford it. That way you won’t be on their books for too long.”
The Mbulus were stunned by the offer of assistance. Jonas vowed to repay every cent borrowed. Lucky said the Cooks could take half her salary towards the loan.
Richard made an appointment with the manager at his branch, and it was agreed that Jonas would pay four hundred rand a month to the bank. For this they would receive a small house with a verandah, a front door, and two windows. There was no insulation or separate rooms, but the Mbulus could add to it over time.
The months passed. The Mbulus worked hard, and saved. Finally, the big day arrived, and Jennifer drove them in the company van to their new home the second week in May. It was the first of the government homes. Every neighbur turned out to see the neat little wooden structure with its verandah and potted plant.
Muriel, the lady who sold sheep heads near the bus stop on Fridays, stood with her three sons, watching Lucky and the white madam and Jonas drag the Cooks' old couch off the truck.
"You are lucky, Lucky," Muriel called to her friend who was trying not to show how proud she was of her new house.
"I’m not lucky, Muriel," Lucky said, aware of the people standing around. "You can also have one." Muriel lived with her sons in a shack that threatened to lift off over their heads every time the wind blew, and was the most disgruntled person in the neighborhood.
"We are not so rich," another neighbor chimed in, "that we have five thousand rand. Five thousand rand, isn't it, for one of these? We didn't know you had so much money. Does the madam have a job for us, too?"
"You can go to the bank," Lucky said. "And make payments."
"Who will let us make payments with no jobs?"
"What about your old couch, Lucky? The one with the three plastic legs?" Bertie "haircut" called somewhere from the back of the crowd. "Will you have use for it now that you have such a grand one?"
"You can have it if you want, Bertie," Jonas said from the top of the truck. "The house is too small for two couches."
Muriel wasn't pleased to hear this. "Lucky, you are letting Jonas give that couch to someone else? I asked you long ago for it. Now you are just giving it to Bertie who already has that fake velvet sofa that scratches your legs. Has she even given your Shona one free haircut? Look how many times I looked after Shona for you when you went to work."
Lucky didn’t know what to do. "You never asked for the couch, Muriel. This is the first time I am hearing you want that old thing."
"Now it's an old thing? Before, you entertained your best friends on it. Perhaps we were not your best friends. Or perhaps you have better things now. Do you have anything else you want to throw out?"
"I have two kitchen chairs," Lucky said.
"You have new chairs, then?"
"They're not new. I got them from Mrs Cook. This is Mrs Cook. I work for Mrs Cook."
Muriel turned to Jennifer. "She is lucky, this Lucky. And she's not called Lucky for nothing. She's lucky to get a man like Jonas. Before, Jonas had a job with a foreigner, and Lucky worked for a good madam in Sea Point. Me and Bertie and some of the others, we're not so lucky. Our husbands left us with children and went off after other women. We have to find things to do where we can look after our children and work."
Jennifer listened to her complaint, and said she was sorry to hear it. "You mustn't feel guilty, Lucky," she said when the three-legged couch and chairs had been given away and the neighbors had moved off. "You and Jonas have worked hard. You’ve made your own luck. You deserve this."
"Yes, madam," Lucky said uncertainly, a lot of her earlier enthusiasm gone. "But if we didn't come to work for madam, we wouldn't have this house. Perhaps we were lucky."
"You would've done it, anyway. I know you would."
"Does madam think so?"
"Of course."

On a wet afternoon in July eight weeks later, Richard and Jennifer pulled into the driveway and saw the Mbulus waiting for them on the stoep. It was much like that first day when the Mbulus had come looking for work. Only now there was a heavy curtain of rain sweeping across the lawn, drenching them where they huddled close to the door.
"What are they doing here on a Sunday?" Jennifer asked. "Something's wrong, I can tell. They’re wearing blankets."
They got out and walked up to the Mbulus. "What's wrong, Jonas? You look in a state, man," Richard said. He noticed the blankets, black with soot marks, and smelling strongly of smoke.
Lucky started to sob. Jonas put his arm around her.
Richard turned to the little girl, dressed in a nightie with no shoes on her feet, and a thin blanket over her shoulders. She wasn’t a talker on the best of days, but looked up at him with big eyes, and said, “They burn our house … the other people …”

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